The 2009 PRWeek Public Sector league table reveals strong growth in PR fees for almost all agencies.
But in light of the recession and forthcoming public sector spending cuts, this could be public sector comms' last hurrah for a while.
Nearly all have shown steep growth - apart from leader Kindred, which saw public sector fees increase by just £160,000.
'We noticed a tightening of our clients' belts during the final quarter of last year. We have also heavily invested in the business,' says Kindred MD Laura Oliphant.
Despite modest growth, Kindred - formerly Geronimo Communications - was still streets ahead of the competition. Regional stalwart Trimedia maintained second place by growing £500,000 to £2.4m, all of which was in local government fees.
There were some notable leaps - Lansons Communications raised its game by 121 per cent; but the biggest jump of 2008 was Camargue, which more than doubled its public sector fee income from £800,000 to £1.9m.
Camargue associate director Graeme Buck says: 'Public sector clients are sophisticated buyers and want to work with agencies that understand their drivers.'
Other successes included Hertfordshire-based public sector expert Communications Management, which continued its meteoric rise, taking it from £870,000 to £1.4m. By joining the COI agency roster, as well as opening an office near Cambridge, the agency is catching the big players.
Brahm was another successful regional offering, this time in Leeds. The agency improved its public sector fees by 59 per cent in 2008, taking it to £370,000. It has had successes with the NHS Institute, Learning and Skills Council, Homes and Communities Agency and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
Edelman was a surprise new entry. The agency listed the launch of the 'C&binet network' for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in November as a key piece of work. MD of corporate Pamela Fieldhouse says Edelman is focused on developing business in this field.
There were some notable absences this year. Ptarmigan, APCO Worldwide, Mandate Communications and Willoughby Public Relations have all vacated the list.
Trends - The key challenges for 2009
The public sector PR market became much busier last year, with more agencies chasing temporarily safe budgets. But these budgets appear to be heading for more difficult times.
Communications Management MD Pam Calvert says: 'There has been a dramatic increase in the number of generalist consultancies piling into public sector work, despite a lack of experience. This has made procurement processes longer.'
At the same time facets of the PR mix have gained importance, such as peer-to-peer engagement.
'Every campaign we are running has digital communications baked into the programme', says Edelman corporate MD Pamela Fieldhouse.
Another key theme was collaboration. 'Increasingly, public sector clients see us as an extension of their team, sharing knowledge and helping their in-house comms functions to develop,' says Camargue associate director Graeme Buck.
Buck adds that a useful way of identifying new business opportunities is to monitor emerging policy from public sector bodies.
But the future looks decidedly less rosy. Agencies are now seeing more pressure on budgets, fewer 'frothy' campaigns and more emphasis on return on investment and evaluation.
Fieldhouse says: 'The trend is towards much more effective evaluation to demonstrate the value of our campaigns. There is also a greater focus on creativity in order to achieve real results within ever tighter budgets.'
Centralised procurement functions are also becoming more influential.
What is perhaps driving all this is an obvious state of flux in central Government. With an impending election and the likelihood of major public spending cuts, agencies face uncertain prospects.
The dissolution of entities such as the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Healthcare Commission has also thrown things awry.
'It's been a case of waiting to see how these have developed in order to assess opportunities and in some cases this is still unclear,' says Brahm head of PR Tim Downs.
The public sector in the news throughout 2008
While many of the biggest public sector stories never see the inside of a PR agency - think 'smeargate' and MPs' expenses - many of the big issues of the day do, be they obesity, recycling or the UK economy.
The Government's obesity strategy launched last year, and as well as an overarching campaign by Freud Communications, much of the work has been farmed out regionally.
Ice has worked extensively on the campaign in the North West, picking up an account from the National Healthy Schools Programme, and partnering with Change4Life's PR agency to launch sub-brands in the region. 'It has increased the coverage and impact of both programmes and has been great to share ideas and insights,' says Ice CEO Stuart Jackson.
'Working with public sector organisations, we find there is greater willingness to collaborate with clients' partner PR agencies to share sector knowledge and contacts and maximise the scope of coverage for our clients.'
The Isle of Man's ongoing recreation from sleepy holiday island to one of the world's leading online gambling jurisdictions has been aided by Lansons Communications. Lansons has been involved in a worldwide comms campaign to promote the Isle of Man as a leading centre for financial services and e-business.
Lansons' chief executive Tony Langham said: 'Our high point was extending our remit for the Isle of Man government.'
UK Trade & Investment has begun a strong PR drive. Brahm launched a campaign on behalf of the body, to support UK export, and employed its digital arm Swamp.
'The digital aspect of the campaign aimed to communicate that UK Trade & Investment offers practical advice and support to UK exporters, to extend the brand experience and to drive up registration numbers on its website,' says head of PR Tim Downs.
The other big issue of the day has been recycling. Camargue renewed and expanded its work with WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) and was reappointed by the Carbon Trust after open market tendering.
Camargue has shot up the league table, from number nine last year to three this year.
Such growth is no accident. As associate director Graeme Buck explains, the agency decided a few years ago to move away from its traditional core markets such as transport and commercial property.
'We identified energy, renewables, waste, the environment and social housing as key growth opportunities and ploughed in a lot of resources to gain market presence,' says Buck.
He adds that 2008 was 'a pretty good year, probably one of our best', pointing to renewed and extended work with Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), as well as reappointment by the Carbon Trust after open tender.
Other highlights included being appointed to the COI PR framework for its Environment Lot, leading to project work from the Environment Agency, and a waste communications brief from Hertfordshire County Council.
'We've had no disasters,' says Buck. But the sheer amount of time engaged in public sector tendering is not to be taken lightly. 'You need a well-oiled system and you need to be selective.'
Buck admits that 2009 is 'certainly tougher', pointing to early signs of government spending cutbacks and a downward pressure on fees.
'Cost in the recession is a big issue - a lot of smaller public sector bodies appear to be focused on low cost without any analysis of quality,' he says.
Despite this the team plans further growth, and Buck expects certain areas to buck the downward trend, such as renewable energy.
2008 AT A GLANCE
High points: Extended work with WRAP, reappointment by the Carbon Trust after open tender, appointed to the COI PR framework for its Environment Lot
Low points: Investing time in public sector tendering
Kindred solidified its year with minor growth and some big changes.
The most obvious is the name change from Geronimo, designed to reflect the merger with an ad agency. This followed client requests for an integrated offer.
'The challenging economic climate at the back end of 2008 hit some of our clients' budgets, but our planned diversification cushioned the blow,' says Kindred MD Laura Oliphant.
Like much of the industry, Kindred has seen a move from long-term retainers to shorter projects, along with demands for more robust measurement of success.
'They want to see more impact with smaller budgets,' says Oliphant.
Key achievements for the agency include retaining and extending its place on the COI roster, gaining access to health and regional briefs. The agency also launched the Science: (So What? So Everything) campaign.
The agency won work with the Department for Children, Schools and Families on its 14-19 campaign, and secured new clients with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence.
The integrated offer has proved successful for Kindred. 'The majority of our clients want to see digital and social media as part of their campaigns. We've invested in this area with a digital agency and have made some key hires in areas such as social media this year,' says Oliphant.
She points to Kindred's client the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, led by Lord Mandelson, as one to watch in 2009.
2008 AT A GLANCE
High points: Relaunch and merger with ad agency, while retaining and extending its place on the COI roster
Low points: The challenging economic climate
City and corporate stalwart Lansons is not generally associated with public sector work. But the agency grew by a staggering 121 per cent in local government income alone last year.
The agency found this to be a growth area after restructuring its corporate and public affairs team. High points of the year included extending the agency's remit for the Isle of Man government.
'Within local government one noticeable trend is in crisis infrastructure,' says MD Tony Langham, pointing to the scrutiny Haringey Council has experienced as a result of the Victoria Climbie and Baby P outrages.
Langham believes he now has the right team in place to deliver for any public sector client. 'In times like these, public sector clients focus on quality of strategic thought, value for money and delivery,' he adds.
He admits that in 2009 the agency has seen fees decline, but he expects consolidation of the first year of progress targeting the public sector, with more successes like the Isle of Man. The agency is expecting growth in international PR, digital consultancy, stakeholder relations and board- level strategic consultancy.
'Public sector clients today rightly demand innovation, creativity and the full mix of communications techniques to meet the demands placed upon them and the scrutiny to which they are subject.'
Langham foresees a last-minute rush to prepare for both a change of government and 'a change in the culture of government', which is expected to be less 'nannying' than Labour.
2008 AT A GLANCE
High points: Extending the agency's remit for the Isle of Man government
Low points: Not making it on to the COI's UK roster